Chris Losh

Comment - Wine - Bordeaux's Marketing Challenge

By | 21 October 2011

With humble apologies, but an administrative error meant that Chris Losh's September thoughts didn't make it last month. Here they are, though, finally. Chris' October musings follow next week. Meanwhile, marvel at how excited Chris gets at news of a marketing appointment.

At first, it looks like one of those 'so what' stories that sneak out during the summer to a general lack of fanfare: Bordeaux’s generic wine body, the CIVB, has announced a change in marketing director. Hardly reason to hold the front page, you might think.

Yet to me, this is one to watch.

While the region’s growers were anxiously scanning the sky for rainclouds and itching to start up their picking machines before the next downpour (nobody is touting 2011 as the next vintage of the century, even in Bordeaux), Francois Jumeau, newly arrived from Kronenbourg Breweries via Coca-Cola France and Moet Hennessy, will be wrestling with his new brief.

A simple little thing it is: essentially, to create a coherent multi-media marketing plan for the region’s 60 appellations d’origine and 20,000 growers for what looks to be the entire world. Let’s hope he wasn’t planning on taking any holiday over the next couple of years.

Wine campaigns run by generic bodies are frequently dreadful and occasionally comical: conceived in the parent country and rolled out internationally with little regard for local tastes and often ham-fisted attempts at translation. The CIVB, though, is not in this camp.

Last year, the trade association spent almost EUR9m (US$12.4m) globally on advertising, promotion and education – a huge commitment. More to the point, its campaigns were different in all its key markets and carefully – if not always brilliantly - executed.

From a social focus of ‘sharing’ wine in Germany and Belgium to food and wine matching in the UK (‘Good food would choose Bordeaux’), a vast training operation in Asia and the somewhat puzzling ‘Life goes better with Bordeaux’ in the US, the campaigns were sufficiently distinct to suggest that the team in France had listened carefully to what their various markets were telling them.

All well and good. The problem is that they don’t appear to have worked. At least, not as well as the marketers would have liked.

Perhaps it’s too early to judge the effect of the big ad spend but, if you take a look at the figures for the region’s biggest export markets, an alarming picture emerges. Take out the blip caused by the 2009 en primeurs and, with the exception of China and the fine-wine ordering centre that is Hong Kong - both of which continue to go like a train - all are either flat or in decline.

Value sales are even more worrying. Markets like the UK, Germany and the US, for instance, all took 5% more bottles last year than in the slough of despond that was 2009, but the actual value of those sales in each market still headed south.

While the classed growth chateaux seem to be able to charge what they like (‘Pick a number and double it,’ as one UK merchant grumpily put it to me this year) at the lower end, it seems that Bordeaux can only sell if it’s cheap.

And this, surely, is not a good economic model for the region. It’s a bit like the band on the Titanic continuing to play in a glitzy dining room, while giant gashes below the surface let in seawater.

It may be a result of Bordeaux suffering from overproduction (117,000 hectares under vine is clearly too much) but it would be interesting to know just how much money is being made by some of the producers whose wines are being taken in bulk to Germany and China. Not a lot, I should imagine.

Working on the assumption that the top level wines sell on reputation (or the bling of having the right village and the right year on the label) and the lower end sell largely on price, it’s perhaps no great surprise that it’s the middle area that looks like it could do with some marketing help.

Wines that are a step up from the basic  – Bordeaux Superieur, Cotes wines, and even the more ambitious Bordeaux rouges – are struggling. Bordeaux Superieur sales were down 7% in France last year – that’s a drop of 10m litres of wine in the wine’s homeland.

And I guess it’s not hard to see why. Unengaged consumers will vote with their wallets, while more wine literate punters are likely to be looking for something rather more ‘special occasion’ than a Bordeaux Superieur.

Yet, this level needs to be made to work. It’s the bridge between the 50% base of everyday rouge and the top 20% of special occasion/investment-level wine; without it the region looks uncomfortably unbalanced.

Talk to restaurateurs in the UK, and, for many, Bordeaux’s only purpose on the wine list is to supply prestige: Bordeaux rouge, Superieur and Cotes wines barely get a look in. Even more worryingly, this has been the case for ten years or so.

If Bordeaux isn’t able to turn this situation around and make its aspirational, yet affordable wines relevant to interested but undecided consumers, it is in danger of losing an entire generation to other regions of France or (horreur) the New World.

I wish M Jumeau well in his new post and look forward to seeing what bright ideas he comes up with. Certainly, if he can turn around what looks to be a consistent medium-term downwards trend at a time of economic retrenchment, he deserves the Legion d’Honneur.

Sectors: Wine

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